What the Possibility of an Iran-U.S. Thaw Is Like for an Iranian-American

After spending a lifetime torn between two nations, Americans from Iran eagerly await rapprochement.
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a phone call in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington September 27, 2013. (Reuters)

“Who would you fight for? I mean, if the United States and Iran go to war? What army would you join?”

Hassan Rouhani’s phone call to Barack Obama has been rightly hailed as a breakthrough, a possible first step toward ending 34 years of hostility and implacable mistrust between the United States and Iran. If nothing else, the call marked the end of names: The dissolution of the Great Satan, the removal of Iran from the cue of war and the Axis of Evil.

For those of us who have grown up as Iranian and American, as the children of both countries, the possibility of reconciliation between these two governments has meant more than geopolitical triumph or a resolution of the nuclear issue. Though not yet the sizeable community that it is today, there were plenty of us already here before 1979, our Iranian mothers and fathers working for American companies like Caterpillar and in the oil industry, or studying on the campuses of UCLA and the University of Oklahoma.

The revolution and subsequent hostage crisis cleaved our lives into before and after, into happy and unhappy days. Growing up Iranian-American in the 1980s required a special durability, the skin to tolerate the demonization of Iranians as religious fanatics, the chanting of “death to America” by crowds of Iranians. Like many children who hail from broken homes, we took on the weight of the breakup. If not the blame, then, in the inimitable manner of children, we distilled the agonies of grown-ups. As a 5-year-old living in Peoria, Illinois, the question was singular: “If there’s a war, who will I fight for?”

Caught between these feuding national parents and unwilling to take sides, we decided to fight for both. Being American made it possible to live, as Michael Walzer puts it, on either side of the hyphen. Iranian-Americans lived in both worlds, as scholars, reporters, advocates, or simply as tourists, traveling regularly between the United States and the Islamic Republic. (It remains an underreported story that despite ill relations with the U.S., Iran has never been a totally closed country.) If we had no illusions about bringing our respective madres patrias back together, about facilitating reconciliation, then at least we could foster understanding by dispelling corrosive myths, by keeping lines of communication open.

Change could only come when larger communities in Iran and the U.S. decided that it was time to settle their differences. There is much talk of how quickly things played out last week between the Americans and the Iranians, but the reality is that the ground work for this latest revolution was laid in Iran in June, when the voting public propelled Rouhani to the presidency. Nearly all of the analysis of last week’s accelerating events, the visit by the Iranians to the UN, the phone call between the presidents, has grappled with whether Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” is sincere or subterfuge. Those of us who saw Rouhani and his supporters up close found his determination to effect change impressive. One older voter described Rouhani’s victory at the ballot box to me as a “revolution within a revolution.”

Things could still fall apart---there remain constituencies on the right flanks of Obama and Rouhani eager to tank rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.---but it is also true that domestic politics put the two leaders in this position. Rouhani made the phone call, but, to extend a lousy metaphor, some 19 million Iranians fed him the quarters (or loaned him the minutes) that made the call possible.

When we learned about the phone call Friday afternoon, a friend of mine, a non-Iranian, later described what Iranian-Americans could not see: The look of startled joy on our faces. That joy is only slightly corrupted by jealousy of the two-culture kids growing up now who may not have to know the United States and Iran as constant enemies. The best part is imagining what the consequences of rapprochement will be for this generation. I wonder, what sort of questions will they be asking themselves?

Presented by

Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.

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